Resolution: the hardest road

Swarthy, thickset and boasting tattoos upon his tattoos, themselves layered around the scars, the man next to me turned to his son, a little bruiser sporting jeans and baseball cap, and asked the question, “What do you do when someone hits you son? What do you do when they hit you and just don’t stop?


Across the country this week, small children, my own nephew and niece included, are starting out at new schools: an adventure in education, making friends (some of whom stick around for life) and an ability to navigate the plethora of social challenges it entails. Not the least of which are dealing with falling in love and falling in hate.

The four year old tyke turned to his dad, eyes all earnest, glimpsing across at the promised cake stand in the cafe and said “Step back Dad?

That’s right son, step back. Whatever you do, you don’t hit them back. Then you tell the teacher, because the teacher will love you as much as we do and when you’re at school, the teacher is in charge. When you’re at home, it’s mummy and daddy who are in charge. Got it?

I muzzled my surprise: my judgement. What had i expected? A masterclass in mixed martial arts riposte? An edict to hit first and hit hardest? Or was that just my stereotypes talking? The heroes on tv are always the ones that hit fast and smart. You can be the suave thug like Bond or the logical victor like Spock, but the hero is rarely the one who just steps back. Even Spock has his Vulcan Death Grip to fall back on.

At the other end of my day, Andrew started explaining about how they’re looking at using community social spaces to tackle hate crime: one challenge being that just because two groups have suffered attacks, they may not want to come together to talk about it as they may themselves be divided by attitude or belief. It turns out that my enemies enemy may not necessarily be my friend.

It’s a long path we tread: at four years old, the rules are simple. Teacher is in charge, step back. When we grow up, conflict tends to become triangulated, complex, weblike, intractable. We celebrate the fighters, but that very celebration deepens the conflict. Positions become stereotyped and stylised, with the only constants being retribution and spite and all communication being tinged with historic context and veiled threat.

But conflict is rarely resolved through violence alone: although sometimes it’s violence that brings people to the table to talk. The resolution of hate crime does not lie in vigilante groups or even law enforcement: it lies in community attitudes and collective values of what is right and wrong.

When organisational cultures fail, it’s because we create spaces for toxic behaviours to fester unchallenged. We create rifts in trust and attitude that mean it’s ok to lash out. We may not actively encourage it, but we leave open the spaces for behaviours to fail. Resolution comes in closing those gaps, in co-creating a shared narrative where the permission to dominate and control is removed. We cannot stop hate, but we can create spaces where it isn’t tolerated.

For organisations, the challenge is usually less drastic: but the challenges of cultural reform are no less intractable than those of racism or bullying. Indeed, because the behaviours are less dramatic, they can be harder to shift.

Resolution requires change: and not always on our terms. Communities are coherent not because they are full of love, but because the cost of being outside them is higher than the cost of membership. Shared valued: shared rewards. Specialism of effort. It’s easier to be in that out.

Hate crime is wrong and is dreadful. But the people who are engaged in it are only one manifestation of a group of people in society with less extreme views but who tolerate or permit those behaviours to take place. It’s these people we need to engage with. Similarly within organisations, there will always be people to exhibit extreme behaviours, bullies, racists, homophobes, but they’re so easy to spot that it’s almost too easy to root it out. It’s the pervasive and less extreme behaviours that can persist, especially where the culture permits them to continue.

Resolution can be a long road: i never thought i would see peace in Northern Ireland in my lifetime, and yet here we are, decades down the line, living largely in peace. Did we fight out way out of it? Did we legislate our way? No, resolution came through bravery on all sides, the bravery to step back and forge new conversations. The pragmatic establishments on both sides recognised that conversations had to happen.

The success or otherwise of the programme Andrew talked about will lie in it’s ability to engage multiple stakeholders in a common space, to discover their shared values and decide what they, collectively, won’t stand for. If it’s simply a space to celebrate the fighters or celebrate the survivors, it will fulfil one need (the need for support and unity), but will fail to be part of the resolution. Surrounding ourselves with common ground is the way to resolution. Because that’s how we close off the spaces for trust to fail, for toxic behaviours to emerge.

And confronting our stereotypes: tattoos don’t mean thugs. A good parent is one who parents well, not the one who buys the best clothes or sends their child to the best school.


Posted in Inclusivity, Race, School | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mastering Complexity: The London Underground

Complexity surrounds us. Mastering new technology, understanding scientific discoveries, even learning how to play an instrument well. But few things are more fearsome to master than the evil intricacies of the London Underground network, a system of such unending complexity that several of the original Victorian innovators are still looping the Circle Line in their top hat and tails, trying to generate enough centrifugal force to escape.

Tube Map

The system itself was built to master plans. Unfortunately, those master plans resided in the heads, hearts and wallets of a number of individuals, and bore little resemblance to each other. The resulting tangle of tubes, deep lines, tunnels, cuts and escalators circle and transect the city like a spiders web on acid. Some lines are grand: Art Deco wrought iron fixtures and echoing hallways, others squalid, modernist or just plain odd.

There are few straight lines on the Tube: your journey usually starts with a crowded ticket hall and scramble through the gates, followed by a sinking feeling as you mount the escalator that pulls you inexorably into the depths. There are exceptions: Covent Garden has no escalator. Instead, your choice is a mass transit lift or around four hundred steps. I often opt for the spiral staircase, on the basis that the vertigo and dizziness is a small price to pay to avoid the crowding.

Once in the subterranean vaults, you continue via curving corridors, steps, shafts and platforms to mount the train.

Trains emerge with regularity from the black maw and a familiar sense of dread descends as you note the already packed carriages, cramped with commuters wedged at unlikely angles and unwelcome personal proximity.

And all of this supposes that you’ve worked out where to go: the map of the Tube, with over four hundred stations and multiple multi coloured lines is a triumph of spatial engineering and abstract art combined.

Yesterday though, i was triumphant.

As i swept up the stairs, heading for the light, an elderly gentleman approached and asked me how to get to Northwood. Clutching the unfolded acres of the Tube map, we gestured faintly at the North West quadrant with an imploring look in his eyes.

My moment had come.

Regular London travellers and inhabitants have an almost magical ability to navigate and share directions. I don’t. But i do have an App.

Fifteen seconds later, “Northern line, down there, don’t change, you’ll be there in twenty minutes” i confidently asserted.

Could i trace the route on the map? No.

Was any skill involved? No.

It’s agility in the Social Age: facilitated by technology, i have the ability to create meaning, not just share knowledge. The knowledge is incidental: it’s the meaning that counts.

This is how mobile technology should be used, how learning should be designed: fast, effortless, founded upon knowledge, creating meaning. And sharing it.

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Social Authority: Power Beyond the Throne

Historically, we embedded many of the manifestations of hierarchical control into our physical environment: City Halls, castles, libraries, universities, walls, ditches, astronomies, senates. The layers of authority were both conceptual and physical: you could only enter the spaces of power with the right permissions. And within those spaces, the person who was speaking held sway from thrones, pulpits, mounds and stages. Channels of communication were moderated and controlled by publishers, broadcasters, lawyers and the police.

Social Authority

Today, the pulpits are in our heads, the bastions of publishing have been overrun and the authority is consensual, moderated by the community within a framework of legal decency.

Formal authority still exists, but the types of control it exerts are different. It’s harder to control information, harder to repress knowledge, because the mechanisms of permeation and spread are so embedded in our lives. When every device of consumption is one of production, when we are all connected to the web in so many different ways, it’s hard to kill the story, hard to catch the storyteller.

Power is no longer vested in knowledge, hidden away, partitioned, doled out in small chunks in return for payment or privilege. The knowledge in itself is abstract without our ability to create meaning, to co-create within our communities and do something meaningful with it.

It’s a rebalancing: we have moved away from a space where authority was rigid, embedded, manifested through behaviours of control. Today, we live in a world where formal authority is balanced by social authority: there is greater accountability and a more fluid dynamic. Social authority is contextual and can, in certain circumstances, subvert formal.

Take reputation: it’s a fickle thing. Social Authority is founded upon reputation built over time. It’s about consistency and authenticity. You can’t cheat reputation. The NET Model looks at how we can actively curate reputation through humility, storytelling and sharing. Because reputation is the foundation of Social Authority, it goes without saying that if your reputation is strong, you can enhance your formal authority with social. But if your reputation is weak, if your actions are unpredictable or self centred, then you will have to rely increasingly on your formal, hierarchical authority, which is a weaker place to be.

Social Leaders should embody both strong formal and strong social authority. And their reputation is the source of their power.

Social Leaders can be more effective because they work within and alongside their communities, leveraging their formal and social authority in service of shared values and goals. They are humble and collaborative in their efforts, but highly effective by both formal and social standards. In other words, they act in a socially responsible way for the benefit of both organisation and individual.

This is not an aspiration: in a world that craves social justice and equality, we have to lead in this direction.

Citizen journalists, wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, the mechanisms and behaviours of the Social Age: curating, sharing, storytelling. No longer the preserve of the ‘experts’.

Agile organisations look at this world and recognise that there’s a need to adapt. They need to change their approaches to learning and communication, to how they use their authority and the types of leaders that they require.

Co-created and co-owned models of change are more suited to the Social Age, and it’s Social Leaders who will help us get there.

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Capturing the Moment: the Authenticity of Stories

I was at a music festival this weekend: sunshine, great tunes, friends. Memories. One of the bands on in the afternoon were a real hit: there were some technical problems on stage, but they soldiered on, kept everyone engaged and, at the end, received a huge standing ovation as a result. I noticed one of the guys, the guitarist, was filming the audience, but then swept his phone round to his friends in the band and gave them a thumbs up, which they returned. All clearly ecstatic.

 Purbeck Festival

Later i was chatting to him at the bar about memories, specifically about how he’d not just wanted to capture the look of the audience, but also the reaction of his bandmates. It was a moment to treasure: a memory captured by technology in service of our desire to build stories that last.

Stories are important: they unite us, bring us together around common desires and expectations, shared experiences. Increasingly we document these stories through the technology we carry around with us: i’ve been experimenting with Google Glass as just this type of storytelling enabler, adding layers of context around the illustrations i share.

Interestingly, it’s not the production quality of these memories that counts. It’s the authenticity, the emotions, the truthfulness. That video will have memories and relevance to them for the rest of their lives, wherever they end up.

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Notions of Permanence: photography

I was chatting to Paul last night about photographs: he recounted the tale of a small sepia picture, a treasured heirloom, passed from his grandmother to his mother. Being a digital child, he scanned it, enhanced it and reproduced it, describing his feelings as he did so: in that moment, it ceased to be singular, transient, decaying, and became permanent.


The transition from physical artefact to idea, the change from vulnerable to cloud based, was tangible to him.

We talked about permanence: in his days working in a photo processing lab he developed old rolls of family holiday snaps, describing the tears when people realised the film hadn’t caught properly, leaving their memories of children playing in the sea orphaned without supporting imagery. On one occasion, the machine chewed the film up: he went to the lab at night, smothered the whole thing in blankets and, in this closest approximation to absolute darkness, tried to salvage the memories. But to no avail: light crept in and stole the images away. Faded to white.

Today, we are used to permanence. I have over forty thousand photos on my iMac alone. We document and chart our life in colour, streamed through timelines and curated spaces.

That permanence sometimes bites us, despite Google’s reluctant efforts to censure the links away.

Frustrating as it was to copy things by hand, to wait two months to develop a film, to have to put things in the post, did we value those letters and packets of photographs more?

We have lost impermanence, but gained a lifelong story. Is it a fair trade? Have we lost something as we lost the ability to lose?

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Words About Learning: Things

Technology is not the thing: it’s the what facilitates the thing. My GoPro is a camera, as is my phone, iPad and Google Glass. I am surrounded by cameras. But it’s the choices i make, the way i frame the shot, that makes the photo, that makes me a photographer.

Systems are just infrastructure: ‘learning management‘, ‘appraisal systems‘, ‘rapid authoring tools‘, they are not the thing: they are what facilitates the thing. Learning being the thing. It’s easy to get caught up in the functions, whilst missing the purpose. It’s easy to think a new camera will make me a better photographer. But it won’t. If I’m lucky, it will help, but it’s the practice and mistakes that make perfect.

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Gender in Technology: Feature or Culture?

I was pretty tired when i got home last night: a long day in London, a delayed train home, it was gone midnight when i opened the door and stepped inside. Only as i was falling asleep did i realise what had happened: at a session with around forty people, gathered to share ideas and stories about emerging wearable technology, i don’t recall seeing more than five or six woman. Including the receptionist. And the person serving the food.

Gender in Technology

There are many women in technology, and many role models of women in senior positions, but it got me thinking: what factors exclude women, is it the types of devices, the functionality of those devices, our culture or the career opportunities that exist? Why do we see women ‘breaking into‘ technology when men don’t have to? Why are so many of the role models exceptional because they have fought their way to the top? Why is there a fight?

It’s not an insignificant question: the Social Age is facilitated by technology. Is that technology built by and for men, or by and for women? Or is it agnostic? It’s not just a question of equality and fairness: it’s a question of effectiveness. If there’s some inbuilt bias in the software or technology, we are deploying an uneven playing field between the genders.

No doubt culture plays a part: even when i was growing up, girls were studying ‘domestic science‘ whilst the boys studied metalwork. My father worked, my mother worked part time and kept the home. Engineers were men. Librarians were women. It’s common now for men or women to be developers or engineers, but is it women playing in a man’s world, or a level playing field for everyone? Where is the institutionalised inequality, where are the battles left to fight?

I asked around: Petra, “I think it comes back to the grass routes thing maybe, education/what other kids were doing… That ‘intimidation’ Dionne mentions, fewer other girls being into it so less natural a field to pursue?” A notion that you are a pioneer or tomboy if you pursue technology?

Clearly attitudes are evolving and maybe removing barriers, but i was still shocked by how male dominated that room was as it was grass roots level: active developers and explorers, the people shaping the technology.

To my shame, i shared a story yesterday in a meeting: i was listening to the radio on an article about neuroscience. The news reader kept saying, ‘the scientists think this…‘, until at the end he said ‘she‘ and i could feel it trip in my head. My assumption had been that the neuroscientist was a man. It’s like cars: my assumption is that when i take my car to the garage, a man will fix it. I’m not particularly right or wrong, i’m just wired to think like that through experience and culture. But it doesn’t mean i should accept it unquestioningly.

The Social Age is facilitated by technology: what is the fundamentals are skewed? What if we are operating in a world designed by men, for men, with features and functions, devices and interactions that men have designed? A technologist yesterday described how they had ‘tested a device with women‘, as though that was how it works: we build for men and test for women. I may be being radically unfair, but inequality, even if only a small factor, is still a factor. If the foundations of the Social Age are uneven, we cannot truly be equal.

Some cultures still frown on women being engineers or software developers. Some don’t even let women drive cars. The bias is real: it’s our fight to overcome it. And for anyone working in a global business that is trading today, this is a real fight, not an abstract thought.

Opportunities may not exist and when they do the recruitment process may be biased.

Petra again: “I think it’s a matter of what the community expects you to be interested in tailoring more of your actions and interests as a kid then one thinks? I was always called a ‘tomboy’ for being into certain sports, for having a motor bike, for having gadgets. And a big part of me did think ‘hey, maybe I should be more girly’ and maybe that shaped a lot of the relationship to technology.

It may be a matter of desire. Caron raises an interesting perspective: “I’m generally not that interested in technology unless it has a useful practical application – couldn’t really give a monkeys about tech specs etc…..even tho I worked in technology – loved it much more when Apple saw the consumer appeal – looks nice, does some useful stuff, now I can play music, take pix etc….rather than about processing power etc… I think generally (and this is probably hugely stereotyping) – there’s still a lot of men that love technology for technology sake but that appeals a lot less to the female psyche – I just want to see the point of it not what it’s made of. Now the world is more app-oriented though maybe that will change…….

Maybe (at least in our generations) there are differences in our attitude to technology that are deeply routed. Maybe we currently identify them as ‘male‘ or ‘female‘ traits, but in time they will simply be ‘technology‘ and ‘function‘ traits. People who care how stuff works, people who care what it does.

The Social Age is very much about what the technology does: the device and chipset is irrelevant. It’s how it facilitates our ‘sense making‘ functions that counts, how it lets us curate and share.

Petra: “I just really don’t think there’s such a thing as a basic female ‘mind’ that biologically reacts with more or less interest to technology. We grow up with preconceptions and notions based in the society we spend most time in and they become part of our personalities and shape some (although not all) interests. I don’t see the difference between a man not into tech and a woman who is – why would the change be anything beyond personality and society? To me it’s the same as the lack of men in dance classes for kids, or lack of girls in the football camps over here. Where I grew up girls in football was a huge thing and normal, and yet here the perceptions seem really different.

For young people, role models are important: in this transitional phase, i guess it’s inevitable that those role models will be pioneering women, but hopefully they will, increasingly, just be pioneers.

One aspect of the gender dynamics of technology is still unclear in my mind: the extent to which the hardware, the genres of devices, are affected by historic gender influence. Was it men, addicted to email, that led to the BlackBerry? Or am i imagining this? Looking under rocks for skeletons that don’t exist.

I’m not sure: it strikes me that there is still imbalance: almost certainly in the functions, design and opportunities presented by technology. Whilst i’m sure things are improving, it’s on my mind that it may influence how we behave in social spaces.

One of the components of Social Leadership is Social Capital: the humility to put the needs of others before ourselves, the desire to fight for equality, the need to ensure nobody is disenfranchised through the technology that is supposed to help us. Man or woman. It’s irrelevant: it’s about equality.

Posted in Equality, Gender, Technology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments